Why Dhaka may disappear one day, like Moenjodaro

Updated 30 May 2018


THE ruins of Moenjodaro, a powerful ancient civilisation, in Pakistan.
THE ruins of Moenjodaro, a powerful ancient civilisation, in Pakistan.

THIS was Samayeen Cooper’s maiden visit to the country of his maternal grandparents. He quickly glanced at his watch: 5:37pm local time, Dec 14, 2044! His stratospheric air shuttle began approaching Trishal International Airport near Mymensingh, the capital of Bangladesh, a small but hyper-populous South Asian nation with nearly 300 million people. Seated next to Samayeen was his mother, Aisha Cooper, a 46-year-old Harvard professor of urban anthropology, born in Boston to Bangladeshi parents.

The mother promised her son that one day she would take him to the country where his grandparents had once spent their youth. Professor Aisha was particularly proud that her only son Samayeen was one of the five selected American middle-school students who had designed the most innovative Mars habitat for their school’s science project earlier this year.

Read: Bangladesh river pollution threatens millions

Samayeen gawked through the window and examined the fleeting geography below, as the aerial behemoth with 931 passengers slowly descended toward its landing dock. The pilot announced in baritone: “We will be landing in Trishal soon. In 16 minutes.”

“Mom, what is that vast ruinous area south of the capital?” Samayeen asked, puzzled.

“That used to be the capital of the country about 25 years or so ago. It was called Dhaka. No historian could say definitively why it perished and why it was never rehabilitated.”

“So, it’s something like the ancient city of Moenjodaro, which disappeared suddenly from history?”

“Yes, perhaps like those cities of the Indus Valley in third millennium BC. There are many plausible theories of Dhaka’s mysterious fall, some of which I have actually studied.”

“What are the theories?” Samayeen sounded impatient as he surveyed the desolate landscape of the former capital from the window of his air shuttle.

“First, the city used to have a unique geography, surrounded by four rivers. The ruling oligarchy had no control over sprouting industries that poured poisonous waste into these rivers. They were more like drains to flush out the city’s filth and immorality. The city was so polluted and congested that everybody, rich and poor, became neurotic and paranoid. By the time the city’s population reached 32 million, sometime around 2028, there was a bloody revolution.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of people in a city of that size! Weren’t there any environmental laws?”

“Sure, there were about 185 laws that had direct or indirect bearing on the environment, but no one cared about the laws. They couldn’t be enforced because there was no genuine desire to create the rule of law. One theory of Dhaka’s demise focused on these rivers of hell, suggesting that a massive plague broke out, killing nearly the entire population of the capital.”

“Something like the Black Death in medieval Europe in the 14th century, the plague that killed more than half of Europe’s population?” Samayeen asked, appalled.

“Yes, something like that. But there is another intriguing theory that it was the social breakdown that actually killed the city. The moral decay was matched only by a morbid race to accumulate wealth at any cost. Greed, selfishness, and a consumerist frenzy drove the life of the city.”

“Mom, how do you know all this?” Samayeen queried, impatiently.

“Well, when I was researching early-twenty-first-century Dhaka for my Master’s degree, I found that streets in Dhaka were completely lawless. The rising middle-class sought personal cars in the name of social mobility. Over 200 registered private cars entered city streets every day in the year 2020. Imagine what that rate would do to the ‘traffic capital of the world,’ as Dhaka was infamously called around the world then!

‘Environmental suicide’

In the absence of strong public policies private banks would happily offer up to 90 per cent personal auto loans, without considering how their action would create a monstrous urban carbon footprint and the irreversible environmental damage it would eventually cause. Even the lower middle class was brainwashed by the market to think that it wasn’t prestigious to use the public transportation. And then under-aged, untrained bus drivers, without operating licenses, ruled the roads! Over 87 per cent public transport violated traffic rules in Dhaka, according to a 2018 report.”

“How did western cities handle the crisis of the road at that time?” Samayeen asked.

“When, in 2018, 13 major cities around the world, including Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Oslo, Madrid, Paris, and Chengdu (China), started a car-free movement with a view to improving city air quality and public health, Dhaka witnessed an epic growth of car dealerships across the city! An environmental suicide seemed inevitable!”

“Where were the traffic police? The political leaders? Urban administrators? The government?”

“They were all there, but everybody had his or her own interests. And, laws existed in theory, but they were trashed, right and left. Roads were hell. The poor and the downtrodden suffered the most in a lawless society. There was a bunch of heart-breaking road accidents in 2018, for example. A 21-year-old orphan and college student named Rajib Hossain died after his hand was severed completely when it got stuck between two speeding buses. His two younger brothers at the orphanage didn’t have anyone else anymore to visit them and to take them out to have ice cream.”

“That sounds horrible. But, mom, how could all of this destroy a city?”

“Some social theorists speculated that all facets of life were so caught up in a vortex of downward spiral that the city was burnt down in the wake of a violent mass uprising. It was like Pompeii, except that the city was destroyed not by volcanic lava but by an absence — the rule of law. A rotting environment — both social and physical — pushed the city to its precipitous fall.”

‘Remarkable turnaround’

“Mom, I am sad to hear this. What an ominous beginning of my trip! How is the country now, in 2044?”

“Well, the population is extremely large, and the country lost about 15 per cent of its southern landmass because of the sea-level rise. Climate change battered the country. Yet, Bangladesh is now doing fairly well as a middle-income country. It was a remarkable turnaround.”

“How did that happen, mom? Sounds like utopia to me!”

“Sometime after the collapse of Dhaka, people finally came to their senses and followed a path of restraint and discipline. A new crop of sincere political leaders with global vision and knowledge emerged. Even when they disagreed with each other, they treated each other with civility and respect.

They planned for the future with new technologies in mind and developed an economy that benefited everybody, not just a few. They robustly resisted an economy for the top one per cent. I would think they had read a very important book — French economist Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I think they tried to understand global economic inequality as the problem.”

Samayeen didn’t even notice that the jumbo air shuttle had quietly docked at the terminal. It had taken a full three hours and 44 minutes to fly from Boston to Mymensingh. He was exhausted and wished that someday soon this journey would take less than an hour.

Adnan Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and urbanist, and currently on leave from his faculty position in Washington, DC, and serving as Chairperson of the Department of Architecture, BRAC University.—The Daily Star/Bangladesh

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2018